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Pro-Hell Evangelical Bastion Smears New Movie Because It's Anti-Hell

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What German wants to defend WWII or National Socialism or Hitler? Most people stuck with the most insane parts of their history are glad to move on. So you have to wonder what's wrong with a "Christian" publication so attached to hell that they have to smear a great new movie -- even lie about it -- to make a pro-hell point.

Christianity Today magazine is the send-all-the-sinners-to-hell gatekeeper of the evangelical establishment. And they are trying to stop their evangelical readers from even considering the anti-hell, anti-damnation, anti-retribution version of our collective human destiny (if you believe in an afterlife) that Kevin Miller's astonishingly good film Hellbound? presents.

Hellbound? is about to be released into theaters in New York City, Dallas, Minneapolis and in 23 more theaters across the country and nationwide in Canada. Most folks who are interested in keeping a lively discussion on spiritual values going in our increasingly secularized culture will welcome this film with open arms, glad that someone finally made something that has enough commercial potential to get ordinary folks thinking about issues normally reserved for late-night dorm discussions in conservative seminaries. But not the pro-hell, pro-damnation, pro-retribution editors of Christianity Today.

(Disclosure: I'm one of the many people interviewed in the movie but other than that I have no official connection to the movie and wasn't paid for my interview. Also, I've been attacked in the pages of CT because I left a leadership position in the religious right many years ago and have written exposing it.)

The key to understanding the pro-hell review (below) is that CT represents the establishment and Miller ignored them. He didn't interview them. And here's the tip off in this peevish review; "There was a near complete absence of professional theologians [in 'Hellbound?']."

Heaven forefend!

In other words, Miller didn't take the CT people seriously enough. (You can read an excellent blog by Miller that just made it to the front page of the Huffington Post Why Americans Care So Much About Hell.)

The reviewer says the movie is about theology rather than about hell. CT editors and other far right hell-loving evangelicals like them see theology as "their" private domain. It's all about theology, not about God let alone the truth. This is like the folks that make talking about God really talking about the Bible or rather their version of it. This is like the reaction of some old school OBGYN doctors to midwives and in-home births. And if you deprive evangelicals of their satisfaction at "sending" everyone but people like them to hell for being wrong you've take away their favorite curmudgeonly psychological crutch. After all they live in a make-believe world where gay people "chose" their "lifestyle" where evolution never happened, where global warming isn't happening, where men are supposed to dominate women and where anyone not like them will burn forever for the sin of not joining their club.

Since when do theologians know more about Hell than anyone else? I mean what's a PhD in make-believe worth? Anybody's guess is as good as theirs.

Let's take this review apart as an example of everything wrong with the gatekeepers of the smug evangelical world. (Does anyone think that if they could get a job doing anything else they'd be doing what they do?)

And I've produced their whole review here. I'll put my thoughts interspersed with their "views" in the block quotes.

First off, what reputable magazine publishes a review on a topic where the reviewer has an ax to grind? In this case the movie Hellbound? features Rob Bell, among others, who wrote the book Love Wins. I guess you could say the movie is sympathetic to his point of view. So how odd and yet somehow typical that Christianity Today would assign this review to Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, a book that simultaneously tried to cash in on the best-selling title Love Wins while at the same time "answering" the book in order to defend the evangelical establishment view of a literal hell.

Galli is no disinterested reviewer. As one reviewer on Amazon described Galli's quickie book:

"With how image-conscious Christianity has become, I'm surprised that this response to Rob Bell's Love Wins doesn't take many cues from the book that inspired it. Instead of echoing Bell's stylistic flourishes, postmodern structure, and graphic design obsession, Galli writes in a straightforward, often dreary way, that Hell is real and people who do not accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour will go there. I point this out because this plodding, dogmatic text will almost certainly not appeal to the same people who feel excited and moved by Bell's writings...  If Galli and others are able to simultaneously believe in God's all-encompassing love for and desire for reconciliation with humanity, AND his desire to expel and eternally punish people--even though He is the one who chooses whether or not those same people will believe in Him--more power to them. Personally, my brain can't bend that way..."

So here's the CT review with my points interjected between quotes.

You know a documentary about Christian faith is in trouble when it begins with film clips of and interviews with people from Westboro Baptist, the infamous hate-filled fundamentalist church in Topeka, Kansas.

You know a review of a movie like Hellbound? is in trouble when it's written by the author of God Wins, one of several derivative, quickie books dashed out to control the "damage" created by Rob Bell's book Love Wins. If the author of the review hadn't been so blinded by theological bias he would have taken time to reflect on why the filmmaker would have begun with such an obvious caricature of the Infernalist position.

Rather than portray it as the norm, Miller gets the audience engaged by despising something of which no one would approve, eventually bringing them around to see that what the "clean-cut" Reformed folks believe about hell -- like the the editors of Christianity Today and professional theologian-pastors-celebrities, like Mark Driscoll and Kevin DeYoung-- is the same as the extremists, only the packaging is different. The theology is exactly the same: God loves some people and hates others.

This reviewer is also hung up by his biblical literalism, which he projects onto the movie itself, completely unaware of its subtext.  But I guess that's the best you can expect when CT assigns a professional theologian with a personal commercial ax to grind rather than a professional film reviewer to the case.

Director Kevin Miller (right) with angry Wesboro Baptist members Hellbound?, the directorial debut by Kevin Miller (a writer on Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and the recent Kirk Cameron-hosted documentary, Monumental), opens with Westboro members protesting at the 10th anniversary 9/11 in New York City. They're carrying signs that say "God Hates Fags," "God's Wrath = 9/11," and so forth, with one protestor--apparently pastor Fred Phelps' wife--spewing angry lines about 99.99999 percent of people on the planet going to hell.

If the reviewer -- who chides Miller for not interviewing scholars -- had done a shred of research he would know that Margie Phelps is Fred Phelps's daughter, not his wife. One quick Google search would have made that clear.

This is the set-up for a documentary on hell. One can only sigh.

The foolishness does not end there.

This is a blanket rhetorical criticism that utterly fails to deal with the substance of the arguments the film presents. It's meant to merely dismiss the film rather than engage it critically. And starting the review with the smug "one can only sigh" might work if you're an erudite Bill Buckley, but not if you're running a little obscure rag on the Christian right that wouldn't know a nuance if one bit them. And not if you can write a whole "movie review" that never mentions anything about the movie as a movie and only deals with the theology. (Note to theologians who want to review movies: you have to at least pretend to like films. Choose one: talk about the quality of the cinematography, the music score, the entertainment value the actors or interview subjects. Then again art and culture haven't been evangelicals' strong point for a while, say since the 18th century or thereabouts.)

The documentary--now showing in limited theaters--returns to these protesters two more times in the short film, as if Westboro somehow represents a widespread point of view that needs to be refuted. While I admire the film's attempt to wade into a complex theological subject--hell and universalism--I was stunned by the carelessness evident throughout.

Again, no evidence is presented. Total smear job.

There was a near complete absence of professional theologians--and this in a documentary about theology.

First of all, there are a number of professional theologians in the film, including several PhDs. Sharon Baker, Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak, Greg Boyd, Robin Parry, Jaime Clark-Soles, Peter Kreeft, Ron Dart and Jerry Walls, to name just a few!

Second, this isn't a film about theology. It's about the debate everyone -- not just "theologians" -- are having about hell and more importantly about the nature of God. It's about a retributive view of God versus a view of redemption and love. It's about a retributive society that worships wealth and power versus a gospel of  the good news that the cycle of sacrifice and retribution is ended.  That debate has spilled out onto the streets, which is why the movie begins and ends on the streets rather than in a cloistered ivory tower, say like the editorial offices of CT.

We hear from pastors, writers, speakers, and, yes, one biblical scholar (who doesn't believe in a literal hell, but only the hell we make for ourselves when we don't listen to God in our lives), and one conservative theologian who discusses something extraneous. Two cheers for including populist writers and speakers, because they do have a better way with words. And so we hear from people like Brian McClaren and Kevin Young, William Young and Mark Driscoll. But while a lot of the talking heads talk lot about what the church has and hasn't taught through the centuries, not one church historian was interviewed.

The reviewer can't spell McLaren's name correctly, but never mind, they'll probably change it later in their online version... And do I detect some very sour grapes in "Two cheers for including populist writers and speakers, because they do have a better way with words..."? I think perhaps the reviewer might be making the same "argument" against people like Brian McLaren that Republican Party rubes make against President Obama, you know, he has a way with words and all that but we're right!

We hear a lot about the place of hell in the Bible, but only one biblical scholar addresses the topic, and then from only one side of the debate. We hear lots of speculation about the place of hell in Christian doctrine, and not one systematic theologian addresses the topic. We hear much about the "fear" and the "controlling" nature of the institutional church (which is said to promote the doctrine of hell to protect its power), and not one sociologist of religion makes an appearance.

One doesn't have to be a card-carrying historian or sociologist in order to make astute observations about history and sociology. And in my experience only the smallest of small-minded people give a damn about "credentials" in the softest of all soft sciences -- theology and sociology. Overall I would say Mark Galli is really upset he wasn't interviewed. This review sounds a lot like a "What about me?" protest. After all, he wrote a quickie book on the topic and judging by its sales numbers on Amazon no one cares.

In juxtaposing Westboro Baptist protesters and an angry Mark Driscoll with calm universalists, the film suggests that those who believe in hell as conscious eternal torment are basically tormented themselves: fearful and judgmental.

At least that point came through loud and clear!

It never seems to have occurred to the filmmaker that there are thoughtful, careful, irenic evangelicals who believe in hell and may have some pretty strong reasons for doing so.

Rather... "It never seems to have occurred to the filmmaker that there are thoughtful, careful, irenic evangelicals like ME, like ME who even wrote a book on this and who is editor of a VERY IMPORTANT magazine filled with VERY  SERIOUS articles on a pretend world by people LIKE ME who believe in hell and may have some pretty strong reasons for doing so and have PhD s and everything in Hell Studies and all...

Given such problems and many more (which space precludes exploring), a viewer begins to wonder what the film is really about. This is my take: First, the film condemns the self-righteousness of many conservative Christians. While I heartily cheer that effort, I'm afraid it does this so well that as we mentally condemn the boorishness of these people, it tempts viewers into their own self-righteousness.

Second, the film wants to promote a vision of God that is loving and gracious. Again, I can only applaud this effort, though not the execution. Why? Because the film ends up committing the same mistake that fundamentalists make: smoothing out the mystery of God.

Completely untrue. When the Universalists talk about the afterlife, they all say there's plenty of room for post-mortem punishment! It's not all daffodils and bunny rabbits and rainbows. It's a hard justice where EVERYONE has to come to terms with the life they've lived -- and make appropriate reparations. If I were Penn and Teller I would stop the review here and say, "Bullshit!"

In fact, the Bible gives us a picture of a God who is almighty and vulnerable, Lord and friend, judge and gracious, hater of sin and forgiver of sin. We see this especially in the life and ministry of Jesus, God incarnate. He graciously accepts the woman caught in adultery, and violently drives blasphemers out of the Temple area, with a whip no less.

Bullshit again!

Christ didn't drive people out of the temple, he drove out animals. And this wasn't an act of anger, it was a prophetic pantomime done in the tradition of Jeremiah, whom he quotes as he does this! Is this guy supposed to be a biblical scholar? This is the problem with Infernalists -- they want to base their theology around an apparent exception rather than the rule of Christ's life, which was an utter rejection of violence, even to his dying breath.

He calls to himself all those who are weary and heavy laden, promising rest, and tells others that if they follow him, it will mean nothing but suffering and death. He lifts up an inspiring vision of the kingdom of heaven while warning people about the curse of hell.

This God of rough edges will not be smoothed out, neither by the fundamentalists who think he is mainly interested in populating hell, nor the liberals who imagine hell is empty. But the Bible will not allow us to put God in a box, even if the box is prettily decorated with the bright colors of grace. On this side of the kingdom, some paradoxes will never be resolved, some mysteries never unraveled. We have the courage to live in the mystery, because we've been gifted with faith to trust that, in the end, all things work together for good, that God's justice is more just than we can imagine, and his mercy more wonderful still.

Thanks for the soapbox sermon, Mark, but this is supposed to be about Miller's film, not your views. Publishing this review two days before the film's release is probably meant to discourage "Real Christians Like Us" from going. But if Christians -- the kind that think for themselves instead of following the dictates of the establishment -- have their wits about them they will easily look past this defensive self-serving hatchet job of a "review" and see the movie for themselves.

When they do watch Hellbound? they'll see a really good film, learn that the world of the gatekeepers is crumbling as they are being replaced by "outsiders" who don't bother to kowtow to big time religious establishment types for permission to speak, and as a subtext they'll have just one more piece of evidence that the days of standard evangelical approaches to issues of faith just don't cut it anymore. Go see the movie!

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back